Navigating the visa minefield and the lack of women: Silicon Valley lessons from a Middle East entrepreneur

Plucked from the Jordanian startup scene by Hillary Clinton's TechWomen scheme, entrepreneur Evelyn Zoubi has now spent four years gaining an insider's view of how Silicon Valley operates.

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Jordanian entrepreneur Evelyn Zoubi: "In Jordan or the Middle East, you can easily approach major companies, and they're probably one connection away." (Image: Spencer Chen)

In 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the TechWomen initiative.

Designed to deepen relationships between the US and the Middle East and North Africa, the scheme creates opportunities for female tech professionals to spend time working alongside their Silicon Valley counterparts.

Since 2011, the scheme has enabled 332 women from 21 countries to experience life inside companies such as Tesla, Symantec, Google, Mozilla, and GoPro.

Jordanian entrepreneur Evelyn Zoubi was part of TechWomen's 2012 cohort. "I thought they'd want someone with way more experience than me," she tells ZDNet. "But I got accepted and matched with Adobe and Flipboard."

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Four years on, and now a resident in the Bay Area, Zoubi is busy building what her AngelList profile describes as "disruptive technologies in the space of digitizing fashion".

Her app performs this service through a consumer app that features sale items from 1,500 affiliated clothing brands including Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Nordstrom, and Nasty Gal. Users harness a "Tinder-ized swipe right/left experience" to buy items or save them to wishlists.

Through the app, Zoubi's product is able to collect "data that shapes decisions for merchandisers and buyers".

Glanse has attracted funding from the Plug and Play Tech Center, as well as angel investors such as Hadoop firm Cloudera co-founder Amr Awadallah, CEO Ihab Hinnawi of Umniah Mobile, one of the biggest telcos in the Middle East, and former Google and Facebook executive Kinh DeMaree.

Much of this success, Zoubi acknowledges, is due to the encouragement TechWomen gave her, and she remains an active alumna. "I feel like we're a big family," she says. "I'm in touch with people around the world, and we can easily hop on Skype and exchange advice."

Selected from 550 applicants as one of 40 professionals who made up 2012's TechWomen intake, Zoubi says she felt like she was coming to the Bay Area to conquer the world.

"It was nice to have that enthusiasm, but my first year [in the Bay Area] was a very humbling experience."

After seeing what others were doing, she says her reaction was: "Oh, I really have a lot to work on."

Differences in funding, customer acquisition, and networks meant "it was like I'd never had a startup and was having [to learn] everything all over".

To begin with, she had to learn more about the subtleties of how products fit into markets as well as adopt a different style of networking.

"In Jordan or the Middle East, you can easily approach major companies, and they're probably one connection away. Here you can't just get a contract with AT&T because you're one connection away."

Attracting customers in the US also requires different tactics. "In Jordan, for every two or three cents spent on advertising, I would get a conversion. Here it's at least $4 to $5. Initially, I thought with a budget of $5,000 I thought I could do [a lot], but I've had to learn about the mentality of acquiring users through virality and for free."

Zoubi's TechWomen placement at Flipboard gave her a great opportunity to see how a small startup with about 50 staff at the time, now 200-plus, was structured in the Bay Area.

"I got to talk to a lot of people and I took advantage of being here in the Bay Area, by meeting many people and pitching to investors."

Nonetheless, Zoubi, like many entrepreneurs, didn't necessarily find it easy to secure the support that she was seeking. "I got a few rejections," she says. "People were initially telling me, 'If you're not based in the Bay Area, then there's no point in you pitching'."

Undaunted, she continued pitching and asking for advice from various sources, including the VP of investment at Plug and Play. Following that conversation, Zoubi was invited to join its bootcamp for startups, becoming the first Jordanian to be accepted into a Bay Area accelerator.

"In Jordan I thought having unique visitors was really important," she says. "But here I've learned more about daily active users, retention, and corporate analysis."

Zoubi also developed an understanding of 'traction', and how to validate a product in a way that is in tune with the language and needs of potential funders.

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Being based in Silicon Valley for an extended period of time enabled her to forge these connections, with that proximity to key contacts becoming an important component in her startup journey.

That said, she feels the issues of location are becoming less important as increasing numbers of Middle East startups begin to attract attention from Silicon Valley.

For anyone keen to learn from Zoubi's experience, she notes the importance of recognizing how crowded the US market is in some aspects and the difficulty of standing out.

"In Jordan, we just have different factors, so standing out in the Middle East is actually quite easy," she says. To make the crossover, and to attract venture capital and angel support, Zoubi argues, you need "a product that has potential for growth and solves a real problem".

She highlights Egyptian startup Instabug, an in-app feedback and bug-reporting tool for mobile apps, and Silkroad Images as two instances of startups fulfilling that brief.

But alongside those examples, Zoubi says Middle East startups face different challenges. In particular, she stresses "getting the right mentorship", and the importance of "getting the right investors, because there are not many investors there".

These tenets are fundamental, she says, if you're to grow in the right direction strategically.

"A few of the startups were doing great five years ago, but they completely disappeared because of bad investment strategy," she says. "The infrastructure doesn't make it easy to build a tech startup in the Middle East just yet, but it is improving."

Additional considerations, which Zoubi highlights for her Middle East compatriots, include incorporating your company in the US, which enables you to receive US-originated funds, and navigating a notoriously complex visa system.

"Once I got that [the visa] out of the way, I felt much more at peace," she says.

For fellow female startup founders, Zoubi indicates that the lack of gender diversity in US startups may also come as a surprise. "Honesty, I had no idea that there were issues about lack of women in entrepreneurship until I came here," she says.

"Thirty-five percent of women are entrepreneurs in the Middle East, but in the US, when it comes to tech, it's less than 10 percent. I thought it would be the opposite. I thought if we had 35 percent, then the US would be 50 percent."

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